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When filmmakers deal with the sensitive subjects of child rape and murder, they may be accused of exploiting the subject matter, of ghoulishness and prurience and much else besides; but they should not be shut down as child pornograph-ers.

The new movie Karla, made by a Los Angeles producer and to be shown at the Montreal World Film Festival this summer, may be restrained and insightful, or it may be exploitative. Understandably, the families of the victims are horrified that it is being made at all, and their lawyer, Tim Danson, is threatening to use Canada's child-pornography law if the movie is too graphic about what happened to the young teenage girls.

On the face of it, the wording of the recently amended child-porn law might even permit such a use. The law defines child pornography in part as any visual depiction that shows a person who appears to be under 18 engaging in explicit sexual activity. The only defence is that the material in question has a "legitimate purpose related to the administration of justice or to science, medicine, education or art." Many Hollywood movies fall well short of "art" and perhaps even short of a "legitimate purpose," narrowly defined. But free expression is a purpose worth defending, even in the case of movies that revel in the gruesome details of the latest horrifying crime.

The murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French are matters of public record, and they belong to the public domain. They are not, insensitive as it may sound, the private property of the Mahaffy and French families. This is every bit as true as the proposition that what Karla Homolka herself does from here on in is a matter of public interest, and that the news media cannot be banned from reporting on it, as Ms. Homolka demanded unsuccessfully in a Montreal court this month.

The Mahaffy and French families are free to work with the filmmakers to leave private details about their children out of the movie. (The producer has offered to allow Mr. Danson and the families to view the film before its premiere and suggest changes.) They are also free to encourage the public to stay away from the movie on principle, or to denounce it for any perceived deficiencies.

Human beings are fascinated by evil and depravity, which may explain why movies have been made about U.S. serial killers Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz. The Bible had a certain amount of murder and mayhem. So did Homer. So did Shakespeare. This fascination could be dismissed as nothing more than prurience, and the movies that appeal to it as cheap entertainment; but it might also be that people need to make sense, in their own way, of the worst that humans do.

The release of Karla (the movie) in Montreal, timed to coincide with the recent release of Karla (the person) in Montreal, may or may not be cynical, as Mr. Danson suggests; but all of Quebec is talking about Karla Homolka, and it is not up to the law to deter that discussion.

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